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Court ruling has Arizona voucher backers regrouping

PHOENIX – Regrouping after the state Supreme Court’s decision overturning two private school voucher programs, school-choice advocates are weighing options that could involve putting a constitutional change before voters or have legislative supporters take a different course.

Though the programs affected by Wednesday’s ruling are small, involving only about 400 foster children and disabled students, the decision itself had broad implications for vouchers in general with its flat finding that state appropriations for private school tuition grants violate the Arizona Constitution’s prohibition against state aid for private schools.

That leaves school-choice advocates considering options that include expanding an existing, court-tested program that provides state tax breaks for donations for private school scholarships and asking Arizona voters to amend the Constitution to allow vouchers.

Advocates said in interviews that it’s not clear what approach they’ll take but that something must be done to ensure that students and their parents have access to the education that parents deem is in their children’s best interest.

“Everything is on the table right now,” said Cathi Herrod, president of the Scottsdale-based Center for Arizona Policy. “This is a crisis time for these students and the schools.”

Herrod declined to comment on possible options, but Republican legislative leaders whose GOP colleagues have championed school-choice measures in Arizona said lawmakers will consider taking action to help the children get the education they need.

“A one-size-fits-all (approach) has never been the answer and so we do need a response. What that response will be will depend on what we can get the votes for and what we can get consensus on,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Gray, R-Mesa.

Added Gray: “We need to give parents the options to take their kids out of failing schools and place them into schools that better suit that child’s needs, and every child has different needs. Some flourish in public schools and some need other kinds of stimulus.”

Gray said “the first option” would be changing the constitution – which would require voter approval – but that an alternative would be to expand the corporate income tax credit for donations for private school scholarships as well as a constitutional change.

That tax credit has been ruled constitutional by the Court of Appeals. The state Supreme Court in 1999 upheld an individual income tax version.

House Majority Leader John McComish, R-Phoenix, said the poor economy could be a factor in considering the practicality of expanding one of the existing tax credit programs.

Potential donors concerned about their jobs may be reluctant to make contributions even though they’d recoup them when they file their state tax returns, he said. “There’s a little hesitation.”

Sen. Jorge Garcia, D-Tucson, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans try to expand the tax credit programs to serve the disabled and foster children but said he would oppose that because of the state’s tight money situation.

“We’re advocating that we eliminate all of them,” Garcia said of the tax credits. “For me, it’s a no . . . even though it’s a worthy population.”

A constitutional change could be a challenge for voucher supporters.

Voters in neighboring Utah in 2006 soundly rejected a voucher program that would have given parents $500 to $3,000 per child, depending on income, to use on tuition at a private school. Unlike voucher programs in other states, even affluent families and those in high-performing school districts would have qualified.

The Utah voucher law, suspended before it could start in fall 2007, was killed by 62 percent of voters.

In Arizona, teacher unions and public-education groups would be expected to wage an aggressive campaign against a change, and an Arizona School Boards Association official predicted voters would reject a vouchers proposal.

Arizona voters, said ASBA Executive Director Panfilo Contreras, “will not support having their tax dollars taken from public schools to support private education.”

“The passionate commitment to protect public education that has been demonstrated by so many ordinary Arizonans over the past few months is proof,” Contreras said.

Without providing specifics, Gov. Jan Brewer reacted to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the voucher programs by encouraging the Legislature to “work closely with me to accommodate the needs of these children in the development of a process that will meet the legal requirements of the Arizona Constitution.”

Andrew J. Coulson, a Cato Institute scholar in Washington, said expanding the tax-credit program is the obvious course to legally help the children involved because the Supreme Court’s decision repeatedly drew attention to its 1999 ruling.

“I actually had the feeling, while reading the decision, that the justices were puzzled as to why the programs weren’t just created as part of Arizona’s existing tax credit programs in the first place,” he said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

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